By now you’ve heard the GOAT talk about Toronto FC.
Best regular-season performance in MLS history. Best strike pair in MLS history. Most talented Designated Players in MLS history. Deepest, best roster in MLS history. And of course, the biggest and most conditional of them all, pending Saturday’s MLS Cup final: Best team in MLS history.
And the Reds are not undeserving of such chatter. Recently-crowned MLS Coach of the Year Greg Vanney has led TFC to an all-everything year, the sort of dominance rarely seen in this parity-centric league. Now, after a campaign featuring 24 victories across all competitions, they need just one more to assure themselves of – at the very least – strong consideration for just about any all-time MLS superlatives on offer.
So it would probably be ridiculous to even entertain the notion that Saturday’s other finalist might actually be the team of the ages, right?
Not so fast, my friends.
The Seattle Sounders finished 16 points back of TFC in the Supporters’ Shield race. They didn’t even go tops in the Western Conference, coming in tied with Portland at 53 points apiece but dropping to second seed in the West via the first tiebreaker, number of wins.
After outlasting Toronto to the 2016 league title via an epic penalty-kick shootout win at this time a year ago, the Rave Green experienced a marked championship hangover, stumbling to a 2W-5L-4D record in this season’s opening months. They were also unable to mount one of their signature U.S. Open Cup runs, falling to San Jose in the fifth round.
And yet … if they can pull off another upset on the shores of Lake Ontario – and how often are the defending champs underdogs, anyway?! – on Saturday, they might just have a better claim to icon status than TFC.
Seattle would become just the fourth team in history to win back-to-back MLS Cups, which is a massive milestone in and of itself. What’s particularly notable about their past two seasons is their constant pursuit of improvement, with coach Brian Schmetzer and the technical staff overhauling their squad dramatically as it chugged along.
Last year’s Sounders were as close to a Cinderella story as this well-heeled, well-supported club can be. After bumping along at the bottom of the standings in the final days of longtime head coach Sigi Schmid’s tenure, they rose like Lazarus under the leadership of Schmetzer and midseason arrival Nicolas Lodeiro, tearing off a still-scarcely-believable run of results to vault into the postseason and eventually win their first MLS Cup, even without the services of Clint Dempsey (sidelined by a career-threatening heart condition) and other injured regulars.
Even in the afterglow of a long-sought trophy capture, however, president and general manager Garth Lagerwey set aside his rose-colored glasses and set about improving the side, seeking to bolster that resilient spirit with infusions of quality and depth in the offseason.
“Lagerwey,” wrote the Seattle Times’ Larry Stone after the vanquishing of the Houston Dynamo last week, “wisely resisted the emotional temptation to keep a title team intact and said goodbye to veteran players like Erik Friberg, Andreas Ivanschitz, Nelson Valdez, Tyrone Mears and Herculez Gomez. The additions, some of them under-the-radar and not necessarily heralded at the time — such as Nouhou [Tolo], Kelvin Leerdam, Gustav Svensson and [Will] Bruin — have played significant roles in the Sounders’ surge to the title match.”
“During the regular season, 19 of the team’s 52 goals (37 percent production), and 11 of 52 assists (21 percent production) came from newcomers,” pointed out Todd Milles of the Tacoma News Tribune.
“That production from that nucleus is up dramatically in the playoffs: Four of the seven goals (57 percent), and six of the 10 assists (60 percent) have been tallied by players who were not on the roster a season ago.”
Even wearing the proverbial target on their back that is customary for reigning champions, Seattle improved as 2017 unfolded and by the end, were capable of controlling and deciding matches in multiple ways. Possession buildups, quick counterattacks, set pieces: the Houston series proved a microcosm of the myriad ways in which SSFC can beat you.
Cristian Roldan produced another breakthrough season in central midfield. Behind him, Chad Marshall and Roman Torres continued to defy the passage of time. Stefan Frei underlined his credentials for the honor of MLS’ most clutch goalkeeper.
Much like his countryman Victor Vazquez has done for Toronto, Spanish winger Victor Rodriguez prevents opponents from overplaying Designated-Player attackers Dempsey and Lodeiro. A pacey fleet of wide players stretches and splits defenses, while change-of-pace options like Harry Shipp and Lamar Neagle wait in the wings. Even the two-month injury absence of influential holding mid Osvaldo Alonso at crunch time – a likely death knell for past editions of the Sounders – was calmly managed.
Through it all, Schmetzer has been the man behind the curtain, dryly diminishing his role in his remarks to the media while constantly fashioning the team in his own clever image, all the while showing an uncanny absence of ego or airs.
“Last year was house money, kind of, wasn't it? For me,” Schmetzer told reporters on Sunday. “Last year we weren't expected to do what we did, right? This year we're not playing with house money – this year we're earning our paychecks. These guys worked hard. They're a motivated group. This year's different.”
In fairness, TFC upgraded an already-good squad, too, adding Vazquez, Chris Mavinga, Nicolas Hasler and other impact contributors. They remain the favorites, a tag they’ve earned via a level of regular-season dominance with few equals in MLS history, and thus boast the substantial advantage of MLS Cup hosting rights. And they want a piece of the Sounders.
“Guys were watching, hoping for a shot to play Seattle again,” Vanney said over the weekend. “From an emotional perspective, it adds a whole lot more to this game than if it were to be Houston. Nothing against Houston, it just [wouldn't] have the same feel coming off a year ago.”
Can you imagine the crew from Puget Sound breaking Red hearts yet again?
Well, if they do, then that “team for the ages” crown TFC having been chasing will take up residence somewhere new: on the Sounders’ heads.